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Chamberlain, Michael Leigh (1944–2017)

Michael Chamberlain, [detail], 1982

Michael Chamberlain, [detail], 1982

National Library of Australia, 25214284

On the night of Friday, October 29, 1982, Michael Chamberlain in a frenzy of thought, tossed and turned all night in a bed in Darwin, after his wife Lindy was taken to Berrimah Jail to begin her life sentence for the murder of daughter Azaria. Over and over again, in that jumble of confused thoughts, came the questions: What sentence would he get? What would happen to sons Aidan and Reagan? What would happen to his unborn child? It was a night in hell. Sentence on Chamberlain was to be pronounced the following Monday. But the Northern Territory judge, James Muirhead, who had given Lindy her mandatory sentence, agreed with the Chamberlains' counsel it would more humane to pronounce sentence the following morning.

When the moment came, Chamberlain stood in the dock like a man waiting to be shot. Muirhead sentenced him to 18 months jail for being an accessory after the fact to murder, then suspended it. When it dawned on him he was not going to jail, Michael Chamberlain broke down and cried uncontrollably. The trauma was still just beginning. And what a trauma it was! A family's life torn apart by a chance event, a dingo sneaking into the family tent at Uluru on the night of August 17, 1980, and seizing 10-week-old Azaria, then the parents charged over it. Justice Muirhead, seeing through the cacophony of claim and counter-claim over the previous six weeks, privately believed in the couple's innocence and had no qualms about releasing Michael.

For Michael Chamberlain, who died in Gosford Hospital on Monday evening as the result of complications from acute leukaemia, it was going to be a grim and bitter fight. The appeals to the Federal and High Court would fail. He would suffer ignominy, abuse, even assaults. He would shuttle to and from Darwin some 30 times to visit Lindy, incarcerated for more than three years, and his marriage would break up. There would be victory, total exoneration – against the sometimes fierce resistance of the NT Government. In many ways, the final triumph, even in the light of generous compensation, was a pyrrhic victory.

Michael Leigh Chamberlain was born on February 27, 1944, in Christchurch, New Zealand, eldest son of a World War II airman, Ivan Chamberlain and Greta. His great-grandfather, William Chamberlain, had built one of the local Methodist churches. Michael was raised on a farm south of Christchurch and acquired an early love of the outdoors. He went to Lincoln High School, Christchurch, and while he was there his mother, formerly a Baptist, joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Finishing his last year of schooling at Christchurch Boys' High, Chamberlain began studies at Canterbury University. A Methodist by upbringing, he started investigating his mother's church, and became so impressed that not only did he convert but he travelled to Australia in 1965 to study theology at the SDA's Avondale College. In 1968, while finishing his course, Chamberlain met New Zealand-born Alice Lynne "Lindy" Murchison, daughter of an SDA pastor Cliff Murchison and Avis. Chamberlain graduated in theology in 1969 and married Lindy in November that year. The couple were posted to Tasmania, where son Aidan was born on October 2, 1973. In 1974, Chamberlain began his media career, producing a number of radio scripts. In 1976 the family moved to North Queensland, where son Reagan was born at Bowen on April 16, 1976. Chamberlain continued his media activities in radio and on the Cairns Post. The family moved again, to Mt Isa in western Queensland, where Azaria was born on June 11, 1980.

The family decided on a holiday to the Northern Territory, spending three days at Uluru before moving to Darwin. They left Mt Isa on August 13, 1980, arriving on August 16. Azaria disappeared the following night. A police inquiry followed. The first coroner, Denis Barritt, found on February 20, 1981, that a dingo had taken the child. The case was reopened. A second inquest was held and on February 2, 1982 coroner Gerry Galvin committed Lindy to trial for murder and Michael for being an accessory after the fact. On October 29, 1982, in the NT Supreme Court, the couple were found guilty as charged. Daughter Kahlia was born in Darwin on November 17, 1982.

On February 22, 1984, the day the High Court dismissed the Chamberlains' appeal; by a three-to-two majority, Michael Chamberlain resigned as an SDA pastor. The SDA church, had quietly supported the Chamberlains throughout, including financial help. Avondale College offered Michael a job as an archivist. Chamberlain looked after his sons. Kahlia went to foster parents. Chamberlain started a MAs course by correspondence with the SDA's Andrews University, Michigan, while continuing his campaign for an inquiry into his case. On February 7, 1986, after the discovery of Azaria's matinee jacket at the base of Uluru – proving Lindy had at least been telling the truth about that – the NT Government released Lindy and ordered the inquiry. On June 2, 1987, Royal Commissioner Trevor Morling exonerated the Chamberlains.

But the strains told on the Chamberlains and their marriage started to crumble. "I could not see it but there was a lot of unhappiness," Chamberlain said later. "We can theorise whether things would have been different had all this not occurred. We would not have had the same pressures." Those strains were hardly eased by the decision of the NT Government to oppose the expunging of their records, but the NT Appeal Court did it anyway, in September 15, 1988, when it upheld Morling's findings.

When Lindy Chamberlain's book, Through My Eyes, was published in 1990, she did not speak well of Michael. Michael said: "She was focused on a few things that were not appropriate." The couple were divorced in June, 1991. The following year, Lindy married an American, Rick Crighton. Michael threw himself into local activities and at one point stood as Liberal candidate for the NSW Parliament. In 1994 he married a divorced mother-of-three, Ingrid Bergner. On December 13, 1995, coroner John Lowndes conducting the third inquest found neither Michael nor Lindy Chamberlain responsible for the baby's disappearance but stopped short of finding the dingo did it.

In 1996, Chamberlain and his wife had a daughter, Zahra. In 1997, Michael produced his first book, a history of Cooranbong, and the following year began PhD studies at Newcastle University. He published a book, Beyond Azaria, White Light, Dark Light, in 1999. In 2002, Newcastle University conferred a PhD degree on him for an historical thesis. Awarded a Bachelor of Teaching , he took up a three-year government teaching appointment at an indigenous high school in Brewarrina, in the state's far west. He taught at Gosford High School from 2006 to 2008 and then retired to devote himself fulltime to writing.

Misfortune continued to dog him. In August 2011, Ingrid suffered a devastating stroke and Michael immediately switched to becoming her full-time carer. He not only took it up, but became an advocate for others in his situation. On June 12 that year, Coroner Elizabeth Morris sitting in Darwin, finding a dingo had in fact taken the baby, became emotional and apologised to the Chamberlains for what they had been through. Chamberlain returned to his crippled wife and devoted himself to the cause she represented, making it a subject of new research. His fourth book, Heart of Stone, dealing with his case, was published in July, 2012. In April last year, Newcastle University appointed Chamberlain a conjoint professor at the School of Education at the University of Newcastle.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2017

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Chamberlain, Michael Leigh (1944–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/chamberlain-michael-leigh-27018/text34487, accessed 17 October 2019.

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